Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

The Grapes of Wrath & Occupy Wall Street

Monday, October 31st, 2011

I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it. It’s great.

Below is a section I just ran across that I imagine will resonate strongly with the people involved in Occupy Wall Street. I’ve long been fascinated to watch how power tries to maintain itself by attempting to enforce isolation and to restrict information flow, and, on the contrary, how increased information flow between the subjects of power naturally undermines this basis. Awareness of these opposing forces, even if not explicitly understood, is what I think accounts for the tenacity and ferocity on both sides of the OWS (and many other) movements, even (especially) when the movements are still only tiny. The occupiers experience the surge of energy and determination and self-identification that comes from solidarity, while those in power recognize the danger and act in heavy-handed ways to try to crush it, usually after trying to ignore and then ridicule. The consistent characteristic of the reaction against these movements, as Steinbeck notes, is that those in power do not understand what’s going on. So in their efforts to snuff out the protests they instead fan the flames, which they then have to react even more violently to. It seems an extraordinarily difficult task for power to successfully manage to defuse a popular movement without resorting to extremes. Hence the absurd justifications of needing to clean (often already cleaned – by the protesters) public spaces, to make the public spaces once again available to the public, etc. Disperse, ridicule, isolate. If the gentle pretenses do not work, then we’ll do what we can to get rid of or evade the media (in all its forms), and then come in and beat the shit out of you.

So for all those out there in the OWS camps around the world (don’t forget there were protests in almost one thousand cities worldwide), and especially for those in the US, here’s some beautiful Steinbeck:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the West. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I’m alone and I am bewildered. In the night one family camps in a ditch and other family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here’s the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “we lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from his first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing; “I have a little food” plus “I have none”. If from this problem the sum is “we have a little food”, the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two-men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mothers blanket — take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning — from “I” to “we”.

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”.

The Western states are nervous under the beginning change. Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action. A half-million people moving over the country; one million more restive, ready to move; 10 million more feeling the first nervousness.

And tractors turning the multiple furrows in the vacant land.

The trouble with bitter

Monday, April 14th, 2008

When I heard that Obama had described people in small US towns as being bitter I immediately thought it was an unfortunate word choice and that it was probably something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d been speaking in Spanish.

The problem with bitter is that it’s an adjective that has a sense of permanence about it. It’s like calling people stupid. Other adjectives, like angry or upset, don’t have that sense at all. They’re temporary states.

In Spanish there are two forms of the verb to be (sometimes called the copula), ser and estar. Estar derives from the Vulgar Latin estare, to stand, and is usually used for temporary states. So you might say están enfadados (they are angry), and it’s clear from the verb form that you don’t mean that as a permanent characteristic. You can use ser and estar with the same adjective (e.g., feliz) to give a different sense of temporary / permanent.

You can’t do that in English, though. So we rely on the adjective to carry the sense of permanance. If you say someone is happy, a native speaker will know you mean happy right now, for the time being. If you say someone is friendly, you know it is a permanent characteristic.

Bitter is one of those adjectives that clearly falls on the permanent side of the divide. That’s the real problem with Obama choosing that word. He continues to make the same point (which I’m sure is valid) and continues saying bitter too. I think it would be much wiser if he hammered the point but switched to adjectives with a temporary flavor: angry, upset, pissed off, fed up, etc.

It’s funny how so much can hang on one word. I wonder if someone gave Obama bitter to use or if it just came out as he spoke. I imagine the former. If so, the person who suggested it should be given something else to do in the campaign. The stakes are too high to miss things like this.

How the democrats could blow it. Again.

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

The race to be the US democratic nominee is pretty interesting. As has been pointed out though, it’s going to come down to what the superdelegates decide to do. Here’s a timeline / recipe for the Democrats to really blow it.

  1. Obama’s popularity and momentum continue to climb. The popular vote is with him.
  2. Hillary is unable to accept that she’s not the chosen one, and refuses to concede.
  3. Instead, she and Bill pull strings and twist arms to get the superdelegates to vote for her.
  4. The superdelegates cave, and Hillary wins the nomination despite losing the popular vote. The irony is unbearable.
  5. Regular democratic voters are absolutely infuriated, the party is split, blacks, the young, and all sorts of other Obama voters don’t bother.
  6. John McCain is elected president.

I think that’s a not-unlikely scenario. And wouldn’t it be perfect? Once again, the triumph of politics-as-usual, money and influence over hope, change, fresh air, and the will of the people. Just what the jaded populace needs! The republicans, cashing in on the never-ending fumblings of the craven democrats. Hillary calling for party unity, for us to put our differences behind us, for one and all to support her, now that she’s been democratically elected as the nominee. Plus ça change.

I can see it all so vividly. It makes so much absurd sense and is so historically fitting that it must be inevitable.

One can always hope that the superdelegates will tell Hillary and Bill to take a hike. I wouldn’t bet on it though.

I think it’s more likely that by then Hillary’s campaign will have had the good sense to collapse around her.

democrats to eat their own?

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

I love the dynamics of the upcoming US presidential race. With Hilary and Obama both in the running for the Democratic nomination, it’s gonna be a doozy. You can see the shape of things to come from recent events:

  • A story appears claiming that Obama attended a Muslim madrassa in Indonesia. Nevermind that he was about 6 years old, that it’s not a particularly Muslim school, and that madrassa doesn’t imply evil (it’s just Arabic for “school”).
  • Fox News runs with it. A caller (random, no doubt) suggests that maybe Obama “doesn’t consider terrorists the enemy.” Nice.
  • Then it is claimed that the story arose from work done by Hilary’s research team. Aha!
  • Clinton’s team denies it.

So there you have it in a nutshell. Ugly and damaging fabrications are manufactured about Obama, and they’re pinned on Clinton. For how long will Obama continue to believe that the Clinton campaign is innocent? For how long will the Clinton campaign be able to resist doing some Obama smearing and then claiming it to be part of Hilary’s vast right-wing conspiracy? Is the Clinton campaign in fact innocent?

It’s a field day for the right wing. They get to play all sides: inventing muck on both Dem candidates, airing it, AND then sourcing it to the other Dem candidate – hey, it must be news if it’s coming out of the Dem camp, right?

If I were Karl Rove I’d be rubbing my hand with glee at the prospects for evil. I’d be planning to smear both Obama and Hilary, in each case planting evidence to frame the other, so that whoever (if either) emerges battered and bruised with the Dem nomination will have all sorts of problems – but none of them caused by the sweet ol’ GOP. Nope, that was just those ugly divided Democrats tearing each others throats out. Which may come to pass. It’s like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Hilary and Obama have to continue to believe that each other’s campaign group would never do the low-down things that they are claimed to have done. How long will they continue to take it on faith? How long can they resist the opportunity to defect? There’s 22 months left…. lots of time to someone to crack.

Hilary and Obama could make the problem go away if they announced right now that they were running a joint ticket (but which of the two would settle for the VP slot? Neither, I bet).

So it looks like open season on the Dems for 2008, both from without and within. At this point I don’t think Obama or Hilary can win the presidency, but that’s no reason to stop one of them winning the nomination. Surely Hilary & Co will have the upper hand when it comes to political machinations, no matter who Obama has to advise him, and they’ll almost certainly have more cash.

2008 is going to be much more fun than the last time around.

iraq spam

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

How to tell when the public mood has changed on an issue? The subject of your spam mail might be a good indicator. Spammers are constantly testing the collective mood, twisting and turning, using any method they can dream up to get our attention and open their email. The main tool for this, having negotiated our spam filters, is the mail Subject line. When you see Viagra or penis enlargment, you know it must be working at a rate that keeps them going – if not on you then on others. Yes, it’s cheap to send spam, but they’re doing it for money. It’s in the interest of the spammers that their methods are successful because then they have happy customers who give them more business.

I write all this because I’ve noticed that i’ve started getting spam with subjects that quietly question the US presence in Iraq:

  Ellen Hammond         Oct 26 04:37 manage troop levels.
  Wiley King            Oct 26 04:49 how Iraq affects American security
  Veronica Ochoa        Oct 26 04:41 the United States
  Harris Bradshaw       Oct 26 04:39 troops home tomorrow
  Bob Jernigan          Oct 26 04:43 a reason to call for

I’m wondering if this might not be a sure sign that public mood has indeed swung.

You might claim that polls could tell you the same thing. But I’m not so sure. Large numbers of people have disagreed with the US Iraq fiasco for a long time. But it’s easy to say “oh yes, disgraceful” to a poll taker over the phone. It’s more of an acid test if the issue can induce you to open an unknown email, perhaps even to buy something.

Spammers are not dumb. A huge amount of effort and ingenuity goes into getting people to open spam mail. I think it would be fun to track spam titles as a measure of social issues. Of course I never will, I’ll just post this. On a small scale I think this example is interesting. Has public opninion really changed in a tangible way on Iraq, and is this made clear by the move to use the issue as the subject of spam a better indicator of it than other things?

This reminds me of Chomsky’s claim (paraphrased) that general opinion on political issues doesn’t affect things much. Things don’t change until the business community collectively realizes that the policy is bad for the bottom line, at which point things change rapidly.